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“The Bright Star in the Early Western Sky”

Late 1920's Harry Carey Kashin Fan PhotoJohn Wayne may be the first name that comes to most minds when talking about western movie stars, but even Wayne himself realized Harry Carey, Sr. to be the true western icon.  Mimicking many of Carey’s trademark moves such as the slouching posture he had while riding, Wayne has been quoted as saying that Carey “was the greatest Western actor of all time.”  The Duke’s admiration of Carey can be seen as he ends a film in Carey style, walking away with his left arm held in his right.

Seemingly born of the west and raised in the gritty style of his characters, in actuality Carey couldn’t have been born further away.  He was born on January 16, 1878 in the Bronx, NY to a New York City judge who also served as the president of a sewing machine company.  Working his way through Hamilton Military Academy, Henry DeWitt Carey II declined an appointment to West Point to study law at New York University.  His pursuit was cut short after a bout of pneumonia, which he contracted after a boating accident in 1899, pointed him towards his destination as an actor.

During his recovery Carey penned a play entitled "Montana," which played crowds for nearly three years with great success.  The money he received from his hit was quickly lost on his next play "Heart of Alaska," which was a box office disappointment.  As his attention was pulled in the direction of acting, he decided to enter into the fast growing movie industry, and in 1909 he took on his first important movie role in Bill Sharkey’s "Last Game."

In 1915 Carey finally became a successful actor by acquiring a contract with1920's Harry Carey BAT Tobacco Card Universal Pictures which paid $150 a week.  While under contract, he completed a series of westerns playing Cheyenne Harry and costarring with his future wife, Olive Golden, and his friend, Hoot Gibson.  During this stint he also created the partnership with director John Ford which would lead him into western stardom.  Together, Ford and Carey would pair up to create twenty-six films with Universal Pictures, the first one being "Straight Shooting" in 1917.

By 1919 Carey’s salary had increased to $1,250 a week making him one of the highest paid western stars of the time.  However, his icon status was soon to be threatened by up and coming trends and stars.  The movies began to lean towards “flash and dash” cowboys, and Carey was known for his “emphasis on realism and grittiness.”  He also was no longer a young star.  Frustration with Universal Pictures climaxed when Hoot Gibson, Carey’s longtime friend, was cast as the studio’s next leading star in 1922.  Carey then left Universal and John Ford.

Carey was still a recognized and respectable cowboy actor, and he worked to create other films with other studios such as "The Night Hawk" (1924), "The Prairie Pirate" 1919 Harry Carey Ivan B. Nordhem Bread Premium(1924), "The Man From Red Gulch" (1924), and "Satan Town" (1926).  Carey also toured the vaudeville circuit with his second wife, Olive, but found the touring to be tiresome and left.

Reviving his film career to that which it was before leaving Universal
Pictures was the 1929 lead role in the film "Trader Horn."  After filming for months in Africa and Mexico, the film proved to be valuable in Carey’s career as well as in his bank account.  Riding the wave of the film’s success, Carey went on to star in "The Vanishing Legion" (1931), "Cavalier of the West" (1931), "Law and Order" (1932), "Last of the Mohicans" (1932),  "The Thundering Herd" (1933), "Wagon Trail" (1935), "Powdersmoke Range" (1935), "Ghost Town" (1936), and "The Last Outlaw" (1936).  In the end Carey received top billing when paired with Hoot Gibson once again, indicating his star status.

Known not only for his western roles, Carey was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1939 for his role as President of the Senate in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."  Although Thomas Mitchell won the award for his work in Stagecoach, Carey showed that he had the ability to leave his horse behind and still capture the audience’s attention.

Working in films until his death on September 21, 1947 from a battle with 1926 Harry Carey BAT Tobacco Cardemphysema and cancer, Carey’s name could be seen in movie credits spanning three decades.  Released in 1948 after his death, the movie "Red River" attempted to mimic the success of "Gone with the Wind."  Failing at this attempt, it did put both Harry Carey, Sr. and his son Harry Carey, Jr. on the same screen. Carey Jr. would achieve legendary status on his own as a western actor in later years, but this film allowed him to display his talents as Dan Latimer alongside his father who played Mr. Melville.

After Carey’s death John Ford decided to remake his film "Three Bad Men" in which Harry Carey starred in 1926.  The remake was entitled "Three Godfathers," and it starred Harry Carey Jr. this time around.  Opening the film is a shot of a cowboy’s silhouette in the sun and a dedication to Harry Carey, Sr.  The dedication is to, in Ford’s words, “the bright star of the early western sky.”  Harry Carey, Sr. certainly was a star in the constellation of early western movies, proving to the be the one which helped later stars find their way.

For more information on Harry Carey and other classic western stars, see:
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Residing in Pennsylvania, Kelly is a teacher, a freelance writer, a wife, and a mother.  She writes and publishes fiction, editorial essays, and occasional non-fiction articles. Contact her at